Food, Clothing and Identity: Life in the Workhouse

Dinner- time at St Pancras Workhouse, London. 1897.

Life for paupers was forever changed when they entering the world of the Workhouse. Regardless of whether it was for a short time in the Casual wards, or for Long term in the true workhouse environment, the poor relinquished all power over every element of their lives. Every aspect of life within the workhouses was strictly governed by ‘detailed regulations laid down by the commissioners’[1]. The regimes the poor law commissioners devised, were designed to make life within the workhouses as unpleasant as possible, in attempt to force the poor to leave and build their own living within the slums.

The image above shows a typical mealtime for women residing in St Pancras Workhouse in London. The women are seated in a large dining room under the watchful eyes of the Workhouse staff. The women, many of whom are sporting a sullen expression, portray the depressing realities of workhouse living. One women is even shown to be hiding her face from the camera, indicating a sense of shame for those calling the Workhouse home. The clothing the women are shown to be wearing are all part of the standard issue uniform provided by the workhouse. Although there are a few minor variations with the inclusion of shawls, the clothing is identical and thus conveys a lack of individuality amongst the workhouse residents. The lack of men in this images is due to the strictly enforced rules for segregation of the sex within the work house. As there were no exceptions made for married couples, this particular aspect of workhouse life was particularly resented by work house residents, as it contradicted highly with “Victorian ideas about the importance of the family.”[2]

On admittance to a workhouse, the poor were forced ‘to give up their own clothing’[3], and put on a uniform which was provided by the workhouse guardians. These uniforms were significantly ill-fitting, and despite the guardians of the workhouses being allowed to add variety to the clothing they provided, they rarely did so. Outside the workhouse
the paupers wore numerous variations of clothing, the majority of which was brought at one of the “dozens of thriving second-hand clothes markets”[4].  The cost of food and housing was considerably high, meaning that the poor had very little remaining to spend on other necessities. Consequently the purchase of an item of clothing would be forgone until it was significantly necessary. Any clothing the poor did have would be worn until it physically fell apart, resulting in many wearing rags “which barely covered their naked bodies”[5].  In some areas of Britain the levels of poverty were so great, and the lack of clothing so prominent, that children were unable to “show themselves in the streets”[6], and more importantly at school. Although the clothing for the poor was minimal, paupers made the best of what they had, by handing it down through the family members, often resulting in boys wearing girls’ clothing and vis versa. Women who could not afford a shopping bag or basket, would carry “their purchases in their aprons by gathering the corners together.”[7] This helped to save their families money which they could then use for other means. Despite the clothing being on average little more than rags, the combinations of clothing the poor wore provided them with the opportunity to express their individuality.

Female Workhouse inmates at St James Hospital, Leeds, 1920. Image from

Food within the work houses of Britain were also subject to strict regulations. At St Pancras and all other workhouses in England, the meals provided were designed to be as “dull and boring as possible”[8], with many dietary plans offering little variation in the meals they provided. These monotonous diets supplied the residents with the basics in nutritional requirements, although the quality of the food was highly inconsistent and “often poorly prepared”[9]. dietaryThe food had to be eaten in large dining rooms at set times in the day. Men and women would not be seated in the same room and during the meal there was a strict rule of no talking. It was widely believed by many Anti-Poor law campaigners that “the poor were being starved in the workhouse”[10], this however was not the case. The quantity of food provisions recommended by the workhouse commissioners was in reality greater than the amount averagely consumed by independent labourers. Be this as it may, the amount of food provided to the paupers in the workhouses was in fact “much less than that provided for prisoners.”[11] To make life within the workhouse even more undesirable, during the 1830’s many workhouse boards of guardians refuse to provide cutlery to their inmates. This consequently increased the levels of humiliation for those residing in the workhouses, as the paupers were forced to drink soup or gruel from their bowls or eat with their hands.

Despite food conditions in the workhouses being harsh and bland, food circumstances outside the workhouse were not much better. Food was expensive, and along with rent consumed the majority of what little pay paupers acquired. In consequence of this, the types of food available were “inevitably limited”[12].  For many families, especially the poorest of the poor food the acquisition of food was particularly problematic. When food became scarce numerous families, if they were lucky, were able to scavenge a small supply of food from their neighbours. However, this was not always the case as for the majority of the time many paupers would have to forego eating any form of meal, and in consequence their “stomachs used to ache with the hunger”[13]. Workhouse environments like St Pancras offered their inmates three guaranteed meals on a daily basis. The workhouse residents were required to undertake a specified amount of labour in order to receive the meals. This was a hardship they willingly endured, as the only other alternative available for many was to leave the workhouse and face starvation.

Harriet Edwards


[1] Murray, Peter, Poverty and Welfare 1815-1950 (London: Hodder Murray, 2006), p. 52.

[2] Murray, Poverty and Welfare, p. 52.

[3] Murray, Poverty and Welfare, p. 52.

[4] Flanders, Judith, The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London (London: Atlantic, 2012), p. 137.

[5] Flanders, The Victorian City, p. 192.

[6] Treble, James. H,. Urban Poverty in Britain, 1830-1914 (London: Batsford, 1979), p. 182.

[7] Flanders, The Victorian City, p. 136.

[8] Murray, Poverty and Welfare, p. 54.

[9] Murray, Poverty and Welfare, p. 54.

[10] Murray, Poverty and Welfare, p. 54.

[11] Murray, Poverty and Welfare, p. 54.

[12] Murray, Poverty and Welfare, p. 11.

[13] Mayhew, Henry, Selections from London Labour and the London Poor (London: Oxford University Press, 1965), p. 15.